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Fats: understanding the difference between good and bad

Not all fats are your enemy. The trick is to know which ones are more “friendly” than others.

One small thing: Peanut butter has a fat content of 50% – fortunately, it contains mostly heart-healthy fats. So the next time you make a peanut-butter sandwich, skip the butter or margarine.

Let’s keep it simple, there are four major fats: polyunsaturated and monounsaturated, which are good in moderation, and saturated and trans-fats (or trans-fatty acids), which we should try to reduce or avoid in our diets.

How much fat do you need?

Fat should make up no more than 35% of your daily energy intake, says registered dietitian Teresa Harris. So, if you’re a man munching about 7 500kJ a day, you should eat no more than 70g of fat daily. Women, on a 5 000kJ daily intake should limit themselves to about 46g.

“Remember this is an upper limit and that most of these fat calories should come from monounsaturated and polyunsaturated sources,” Harris advises. Proceed with caution with saturated fats found in animal products (such as meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, dairy products and butter), as well as coconut and palm-kernel oils.

Where to find the “friendly” fats

Some fats are actually good for your health. Omega-3 fatty acids are especially beneficial for your heart. They appear to decrease the risk of coronary artery disease, protect against irregular heartbeat and help lower blood pressure levels. The best food sources for healthy fats (just don’t overdo them) are vegetable oils, such as olive, peanut, canola and avocado, as well as olives, avocados, nuts and seeds. Find your omega-3s in oily fish like sardines, anchovies, pilchards, mackerel and salmon.

Make sure that most of the fats you eat are the healthier ones. Here’s how:

  • Use a little oil (about a teaspoon per person) instead of butter to lightly fry your food. Cooking sprays made from vegetable oils are also good choices.
  • Substitute cream in recipes with low-fat evaporated milk.
  • Low-fat yoghurt is a great healthy alternative to sour cream and crème fraîche.
  • Enjoy sliced avocado on rye toast or crackers with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. You can also add them to salads and sandwiches, or make guacamole to enjoy with vegetable crudités.
  • How to avoid the “unfriendly” fats

    The industrial process turns fats into the nasties that they are: hydrogen is added to vegetable oils, making them more solid. Unfortunately, while they’re effective for adding taste to baked and fried goods, they also clog arteries. Saturated and trans fats can increase your risk of heart disease by increasing both your total and LDL (bad) cholesterol.

    Dietary cholesterol isn’t technically a fat, but it’s found in animal sources such as meat, poultry, seafood, dairy products and butter.

    If you have high blood cholesterol levels or a family history of heart disease, then limit your intake of all saturated fat from any source, including coconut oil, until there is more scientific proof to support its use to benefit health. However, if your risk of heart disease is low and you like the taste of coconut oil or coconut products, moderation is recommended. Instead of adding coconut products to a diet already high in fat, use them to replace other highly saturated foods like butter.

    Here's how to limit your daily saturated-fat intake:

    • Select lean cuts of meat and remove any visible fat before cooking.
    • Cut back on processed meats, such as hot dogs, polony, salami and streaky bacon.
    • Allow stews and curries to stand after preparation and then remove the layer of oil from the surface before reheating and serving.
    • Don’t use the fat dripping from roasts to make gravy – prepare a gravy from stock, corn flour and seasoning instead.
    • Make meat dishes go further by slicing cuts thinly and adding legumes or vegetables.
    • Use low-fat milk and yoghurt.
    • Flavour foods with garlic, lemon, vinegars, herbs and spices instead of butter.
    The lowdown on low-fat diets

    A low-fat diet is better than a no-fat diet. Did you know fats are vital in our diet as they supply the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, as well as the essential fatty acids for a healthy skin and for regulating certain body functions?

    Fast fat facts
    • Peanut butter has a 50% fat content, compared to butter and margarine, which have about an 80% fat content. It’s also higher in monounsaturated fats. Remember, don’t use butter or margarine in addition to peanut butter.
    • Butter vs margarine? “There’s no simple answer here,” says Harris. Butter is naturally high in saturated fats and trans fats. Margarine, while made from vegetable oil, may also contain trans fats and saturated fats, due to processing. If you don’t have high cholesterol levels and like butter, then use it in moderation. Better still, use a light spread of avocado, peanut butter or light trans-fat-free margarine (not brick margarine), or a dash of olive, canola or avocado oil.

    If you have a question for our dietitians, click here, or to find a dietitian in your area, visit To get in touch with us, email